Tag Archives: Nihilism

After Nihilism: “Tending the Soul & Repairing the World”

nihilism1-751397

What are we to make of nihilism? Some think it is the major problem of our times. Others think it is the normal human condition. Some think it is “the spirit of our age.” Some think it is an attitude and life stance to be passionately embraced, whether pessimistically or gleefully. Others think it is a critical challenge to be confronted and overcome.

Still others have never given it a second thought. Some may even be “banal nihilists” who have never even heard of the word and yet their entire worldview and way of life is unconsciously nihilistic. Some may be “card-carrying nihilists” who ironically find “meaning” in telling others with evangelistic zeal that “life is meaningless.” Finally, some have used philosophical and ethical nihilism as a cover to justify crime, vice, corruption, mayhem, madness and murder.

What is nihilism? The question of definition exposes the problem in formulating a coherent and consistence response to it. Bing’s dictionary offers three different meanings:

  1. total rejection of social mores: the general rejection of established social conventions and beliefs, especially of morality and religion
  2. belief that nothing is worthwhile: a belief that life is pointless and human values are worthless
  3. disbelief in objective truth: the belief that there is no objective basis for truth
Wikipedia offers a good introduction to the idea of nihilism:

Nihilism (/ˈn.ɨlɪzəm/ or /ˈn.ɨlɪzəm/; from the Latin nihil, nothing) is the philosophical doctrine suggesting the negation of one or more putatively meaningful aspects of life. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism, which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.[1] Moral nihilists assert that morality does not inherently exist, and that any established moral values are abstractly contrived. Nihilism can also take epistemological or ontological/metaphysical forms, meaning respectively that, in some aspect, knowledge is not possible, or that reality does not actually exist.

The term is sometimes used in association with anomie to explain the general mood of despair at a perceived pointlessness of existence that one may develop upon realising there are no necessary norms, rules, or laws.[2] Movements such as Futurism and deconstruction,[3] among others, have been identified by commentators as “nihilistic” at various times in various contexts.

Nihilism is also a characteristic that has been ascribed to time periods: for example, Jean Baudrillard and others have called postmodernity a nihilistic epoch,[4] and some Christian theologians and figures of religious authority have asserted that postmodernity[5] and many aspects of modernity[3] represent a rejection of theism, and that such rejection of their theistic doctrine entails nihilism.

The Wikipedia article distinguishes between different forms of nihilism, including metaphysical, epistemological, mereological (or compositional), existential, moral, and political nihilism. It presents a brief history of nihilism and its critics, including Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, along with the views of post-modernism, transcendental nihilism, methodological naturalism and scientific reductionism. Finally, it identifies the influence of nihilism in culture, including Dada, literature, music and film.

If one turns to Amazon Books one will discover a variety of scholarly expositions of nihilism. One book titled Nihilism by Freydis has this provocative lead-in:

“Nihilism represents the greatest existential challenge in human history, and no matter how hard you may try you cannot avoid it! Yet despite this importance rarely has a critical concept been more widely misunderstood, largely because so many lack the words and ideas needed to visualize and describe what is in fact a remarkably widespread sentiment. And now one iconoclastic author and radical thinker delivers what may be the most revolutionary book in print since Darwin’s The Origin of Species.”

Here we are being told that nihilism is the greatest existential challenge of our time, that it is more pervasive than most people realize, and that it is a concept that is widely misunderstood. If all this is true then it appears that nihilism is a complex idea, a perplexing condition and a cultural phenomena to which we had better give greater attention.

One response to nihilism is expressed in a book entitled “F**k it.” This response seems to be saying that nihilism is the way of nature, the human condition, the ethos of modernity, and the state of the world, so if you can’t beat um, join um. Just don’t care and don’t give a damn what other people think. Go your own way and do your own thing because in the end none of it matters anyway. We’re just “dust in the wind.”

Another response to nihilism says that nihilism is a condition to be confronted and overcome. Nietzsche advocates the way of self-overcoming and the will to power. Sartre advocates existential courage to live authentically and without “bad faith” in the face of meaningless futility. Camus advocates the hero of the absurd, “imagining Sisyphus smiling.” Heidegger and Tillich advocate the courage to be and the encounter with the Eternal Now after the shaking of the foundations. Pascal and Kierkegaard advocate the existential wager and theistic leap of faith. Michael Polanyi advocates the realization of “tacit knowledge and the personal dimension” that is ontologically transcendent and epistemologically prior to Cartesian substance extension, rational theory and scientific empiricism. John Haught advocates the spiritual implications of man’s “critical intelligence” (which includes affectivity, intersubjectivity, metaphors, aesthetics and theoria). David Ray Griffin and Christian de Quincey advocate process panpsychism. Emerson, influenced by neo-platonism, Hindu Vedanta, Kantian transcendental idealism and English Romanticism advocates transcendentalism; Loren Eiseley and Ursula Goodenough advocate poetically and quasi-spiritually enriched approaches to the sciences of paleontology and biology. Karl Jaspers and Ken Wilber advocate philosophical visions of Encompassing and Integral Reality; Terry Eagleton advocates a transcendence of nihilism through literary and social criticism, including a Marxist apologetic and critique of Capitalism. William James advocates  the pragmatic “the will to believe” in human values and spiritual transcendence in the midst of an ambiguous and pluralistic universe. Richard Rorty advocates a neo-pragmatic post-modern commitment to the values of “contingency, irony, and solidarity” without appeal either metaphysical or empirical claims such as religion and science, tradition or progress.

My point here is that there are all kinds of ways in which different persons have attempted to confronte and overcome the challenge of nihilism. Of course there are disagreements among those who have taken different paths, and some will accuse others of either evading the issue or falling short in their attempt to transcend emptiness, futility, meaninglessness and despair.

Others have been content to accept nihilism as the universal human condition and the final word on the subject. However, among card-carrying nihilists we can distinguish between three types: (1) deconstructive anarchists to say “to hell with everybody and everything;” (2) unconscious and assimilated players who take nihilism for granted and don’t think it’s a big deal. They might say “Sure, life sucks and then you die, but what are you gonna do about it? Just have a good time, life and let die.” (3) constructivist and transcendental nihilists who believe that since life has no intrinsic meaning we are radically free to construct our own subjective and personally satisfying meanings, or “immortality projects” as Ernest Becker called them.

A nihilistic constructivist might say, “In the end we all still die, but along the way we can enjoy “the illusions of meaning” and the useful fictions that we have constructed to give temporary shape and purpose to our shapeless and purposeless universe. We build our sand-castles along the seashore, knowing that soon the sea will come to wipe out our creative projects. But that’s OK because it is our instinctivenature to enjoy “lucid play” even in the face of its nihilistic negation. And who knows, maybe even if we cannot have what we really want, which is personal immortality, we can achieve a kind of ‘symbolic immortality’ in creating beautiful and useful things, and advancing the pursuit of knowledge, the care of the earth and the betterment of society during our objectively absurd but subjectively meaningful sojourn.”

I do believe that nihilism (and responses to it) represents one of the important challenges of our modern secular age, that its influence is more pervasive and banal than most people realize, that it is largely operating below our personal and collective radar, and that it is seriously misunderstood. My own response to the challenge of nihilism is a conviction that after we have faced up to and passed through the Dark Night of nihilism that we can come out the other side to begin the work of healing our souls and repairing our world. For me “giving up” and surrendering in defeat to meaninglessness, normlessness, futility and despair is not a viable option. Nor is shaking our fist in angry rage a real solution. The questions I ask of all philosophies and sciences, arts and letters, economics and politics, trades and technologies is this: What are you doing to heal the soul and repair the world? Do you have an “immortality project” or at least a “mortality project” that gives your life meaning and purpose beyond mere survival, security, diversion and amusement? If so, what is it? In what ways do you seek to realize your creative  potential and to make a caring difference in your world? If you are committed to caring and creativity, to moral courage and conscious living then you are not a nihilist. You are saying a profound “yes” to life.

The Transcendentalist Vision: Affirming Nature, Life, Mind, Meaning, Values and Hope

transcendentalism-photo-300x225

There can be no doubt that “transcendentalal idealism” and “scientific naturalism” represent two divergent worldviews. Transcendentalists have no need to deny the partial truths and relative values of various theories and discoveries within the physical, natural, cognitive and social sciences, but they view reality as layered in such a way that a Higher Order of Reality informs and inhabits the physical dimension of existence. For  transcendentalists there is no need for a zero-sum debate as between Creationists and Evolutionists.  For transcendentalists the relation between transcendent Spirit and immanent Nature is not oppositional or even separate as in dualism. Conflict would only happen between the physical substance view and the mental ideation view if either the Naturalistic Perspective or the Transcendental Perspective were to dogmatically insist that it ALONE has perceived, discovered and contained the totality of reality and the summation of truth. Of course there are those who take this stance, but it is an unnecessary one.

Why does one who has been raised into the modern secular culture of scientific naturalism become a transcendentalist? Perhaps it is only when one has read the many bleak and pessimistic accounts of reality that have been given by various “sober naturalists” and has followed the “logic” of naturalism to its stark conclusion of nihilistic absurdity and existential despair that one might be ready to search for a viable alternative. “Sunny naturalists” deny any connection between naturalism and nihilism while sober ones not only admit it but wear it as a badge of honor, boasting that they at least have the stoic courage to admit that ultimately our entire existence is meaningless and futile. In my last blog I quoted three “sober naturalists” who express a vision of “meaningless existence” and “unyielding despair.” I could quote a dozen more. Yet “sunny naturalists” deny any link between naturalism and nihilism, and distance themselves from those naturalists with a more bleak assessment of man’s fragile and fleeting place within our accidental and unintended universe.

To be fair to scientific naturalism there are those writers like Paul Davies (a physicist), Ursula Goodenough (a biologist), and Loren Eiseley (a paleontologist) who do not drive a wedge between science and spirituality, immanence and transcendence, physics and metaphysics, but instead approach the Sacred Mystery within the context of their scientific disciplines. Their “religious naturalism” leans up against the door of transcendentalism without opening the door and walking through it.

The transcendentalist perspective begins with a spiritual intuition that the natural endowments of organic life, conscious mind, tacit knowledge and critical intelligence all point toward a Higher Source that informs and dwells within the physical dimension of existence but is not entirely limited or contained by it. It begins with the “tacit knowledge” that our temporal existence is rooted in Universal Being, and that the transcendental ideas of Beauty, Goodness, Truth, Freedom and Love are not merely nominal reification of linguistically and culturally constructed sentimentality but real and enduring insights into the fundamental nature of reality.

Of course this is where transcendentalists and naturalists must “agree to disagree.” Transcendentalists maintain that without these transcendental ideas from a higher source and our anticipatory future quest “to be and to know” are both ultimately frustrated. If our entire existence accidentally and pointlessly evolved from an originally  lifeless and mindless universe, and if all the processes of our human existence and experience can be fully explained by appeals to physical, chemical, psychological and social mechanisms, and if the whole cosmic, natural, historical and human drama ultimately ends in utter extinction and annihilation, then why should we care about the charade of our fleeting and ephemeral existence? “It’s all gonna fade.” Further, why should we trust our minds=brains to know the truth of “what is” if “mind” reduces to “brain” and “brain” reduces to the accidental, mechanistic, deterministic and probabilistic epiphenomenon of lifeless and mindless matter? Why should “life” and “mind” matter in a fundamentally mindless and lifeless universe that produced us as a sa kind of freak accident, a highly improbable fluke?

Naturalists, on the other hand, criticize transcendentalists for positing the timeless reality of metaphysical ideas such as Being, Beauty, Goodness, Truth, Freedom and Love “without a shred of scientific evidence” as understood within boundaries of empirical scientific method and the assumed worldview of scientific naturalism. Naturalists will maintain that while such “tacit knowledge” and “critical intelligence” that includes our experiences of subjectivity,  intersubjectivity, metaphors, aesthetics, symbols and rituals, art and music are personally meaningful and scientifically interesting, they are finally reducible to observable and measurable physical and bio-chemical processes, combined with psychological mechanisms and cultural socialization.  The need of and evidence for transcendental ideas is therefore categorically denied.

Transcendentalists respond by saying that unless our transitory and improbable existence is rooted in Transcendent Being, and unless our physical, biological, psychological and social existence is informed by the “innate ideas” of Beauty, Goodness, Truth, Freedom and Love, these words have no real meaning. In this case our quest for the truth of “what is” reduces “mind” to “brain” and “sentient life” to “dead matter” in a pointless universe in which the most honest response is one of futility and despair.

When those who formally deny any appeal to these transcendental ideas continue to live as if these ideas did make some existential and moral claim upon them, they are not being consistent with their own presuppositions. They are living a contradiction, declaring that life is ultimately meaningless and futile while continuing to live as if it were at least temporarily meaningful and hopeful, and as if the transcendental ideas still had some existential and moral value for them.

This was Nietzsche’s criticism of his fellow naturalists who did not see that the logic of naturalism demands a radical “transvaluation of values,” “the death of God” and with it the death the compassionate humanitarian values associated with democratic liberalism. Nietzshe viewed these as rooted in a synthesis of the transcendental ideals of the Socratic, Neo-Platonic, Aristotelian, Jewish and Christian traditions, and so he wanted to replace them with the Promethean “anti-christ” and “super-man” for “whom might makes right.” In Nietzsche’s view the heroic “will to power” must replace the saintly “power of love” and the philosophical search for “eternal truth.”  “Sunny naturalists” want to continue  feeding upon the fruits of our civilization’s transcendental traditions while severing its roots. Nietzsche saw this as a cowardly evasion by sunny naturalists and liberal humanists.

Some transcendentalists emphasize the timeless and eternal nature of Being in Itself. These are identified with Neo-Platonism, Vedanta,  the Perennial Philosophy and The Traditionalists, among others.

The term Perennial philosophy was popularized in more recent times by Aldous Huxley, who was profoundly influenced by Vivekanda’s Neo-Vedanta and Universalism,[26] in his 1945 book: The Perennial Philosophy. He defined the perennial philosophy as:

“the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical to, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being; the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the perennial philosophy may be found among the traditional lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions.”

Other transcendentalists emphasize the evolutionary, emergent, novel and creative nature of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being that is also the Lure of the Future. They include process philosophers and theologians, including the contributions of Tielhard de Chardin, Alfred North Whitehead, Henry Bergson, Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb and David Ray Griffin, among others. Ken Wilber and other Integral Thinkers have combined elements of both the Perennial and Process philosophical traditions, along several other traditions as well. Wilber’s placement of various major intellectual theorists within his four ontological and epistemological quadrants is brilliant and worth examining, but that will have to wait for another occasion.

Perennial Philosophers and Process Philosophers are both critics of the worldview of scientific naturalism, also called materialism and physicalism. Perennial Philosophers locate the transcendent reality metaphorically “above” the mundane world of the senses even while it dwells within it. Process Philosopher locate the transcendent reality “ahead” in the anticipatory future. Some Process Philosophers call themselves pan-en-theists to distinguish themselves from pantheists. They may also call themselves panpsychists or pan-experientialists to distinguish themselves from both dualists and idealists. A brief visit to Wikipedia will clarify these distinctions.

What Perennialists and process philosophers, pantheistic idealists and panentheistic panpsychists have in common is their view that the “later and more complex” emergence of Life and Mind, and  of tacit knowledge and critical intelligence are more disclosing of “what is” and “what may yet become” than the reductive naturalist’s appeal to “earlier and simpler” forms of inorganic matter various deterministic mechanisms.

Let me sum up: For transcendentalists of every kind there is a shared conviction that unless our temporal existence is grounded in Universal Being and our psychological and cultural values are rooted in an appeal to such transcendent ideas as Beauty, Goodness, Truth, Freedom and Love, the human enterprise must inevitably and ultimately be frustrated and end in meaningless and futility. I suspect that it is only when one becomes disillusioned with scientific naturalism as a total worldview that one considers alternatives such as transcendentalism. The reverse is also true. After the era of American transcendentalism that was led by such figures as Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Thoreau and Whitman, there was a counter-movement by the “anti-transcendentalists” who followed, expressed in the writings of Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Twain, Thomas Hardy, Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad, and others. The modern literary and philosophical movements of realism, naturalism, nihilism, existentialism, absurdism, parody and ironism tell a story of descent into the abyss, life rendered increasingly tragic, cruel, ridiculous, irrational, fatalistic, meaningless absurd. Scientific naturalism as a reductive and mechanistic worldview has nothing to offer us that will essentially alter this story of our collective cultural descent into the abyss. Transcendentalism matters because it affirms the primacy of life, mind, meaning and hope in a way that naturalism is not able to do.